by Ashley Kuehl, executive editor, YA trade nonfiction
Mark Bieschke and Kathy Belge are the authors of Queer, 2nd Edition: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens. I asked them about the inspiration behind their book, coming out, how things have changed since they were teens, and how best to encourage and help queer teens today.
What made you want to write this book?
KB: I wanted to write Queer because a lot of the teens I worked with were looking for information that wasn’t available in any other book at the time. Most of the books for queer teens were kind of angsty and talked a lot about coming out and coping with homophobia. That was important, but I wanted to move beyond that—to celebrate being queer. And to offer advice on things young people want to know about, like how to meet other queer teens, how to date and get involved in the community and get unbiased information about sex.
MB: Growing up when I did, finding any reliable information on what being queer meant—let alone *how* to be a queer person in the world at that time—was next to impossible. Most of the time, the only available media that even referenced being gay was panicked reports about AIDS on the one hand, and porn you had to sneak a look at in mall bookstores on the other. Like all of us back then, I think, I learned to read between the lines of a lot of literature and TV programming, and eventually found my way through the library to queer authors—like following a breadcrumb trail to a queer intellectual home!
If I had had a book like this, or any guide to LGBTQ life, I would have been so relieved—not to mention educated! Even just any form of connection from other queer people who had firsthand knowledge of what living as a queer person meant would have been invaluable. Something to give to my parents to help them navigate who I was becoming would have been so helpful as well, especially with all the toxic rhetoric we continue to hear about the queer “lifestyle” even today.
At what age and how did you come out?
MB: I was blessed with being so obviously gay and somewhat fearless from childhood that I was able to know I was gay and be out about it from a very young age. But in those times when people knew very little about being gay, or thought they knew no gay people, my form of coming out was to have to educate my family and peers about what that meant. Coming out meant declaring myself to people officially, putting a name to what I was for them, which was at times very difficult and sometimes embarrassing and even violent. But I was so fortunate to not have to struggle internally with my identity, although I did experiment with women to make sure. We all became very good friends.
KB: Coming out doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process. I started to come out at age 16 when I realized I wanted to spend more time with my best (female) friend than any of the guys I was supposed to be interested in. I was confused by this. I had a crush on a guy but would drop any plans if my best friend wanted to hang out. It was 1981 and absolutely no one I knew was out. There were rumors that my gym teacher was a lesbian, but any comments I heard about that were usually mean. So, even though I had strong feelings for my friend, I didn’t think there was any way I could be a lesbian. I continued to fall for my close girlfriends and was even physically intimate with a friend in college. But it wasn’t until I met a strong group of out and proud lesbians in college—and made out with one—that I was finally able to admit to myself, and to her, that I was a lesbian. Once I finally uttered the words, “I am out,” I have never questioned or looked back.
It’s super important to stress that coming out is not something that just happens. People usually spend a lot of time questioning and defining and redefining themselves before they settle on an identity that fits.
How did you first hear the word gay or about homosexuality in general?
MB: I learned through television! There was a hilarious sitcom called Soap in the late 1970s that parodied soap operas, and the character of Jodie, played by Billy Crystal, was openly gay and even had a gay wedding on TV. The character was a little problematic in that there was some confusion around terms like cross-dressing and whether gay men wanted to act like women, but he was TV’s first regularly appearing gay character, and I was lucky enough to see the show. From there, I dove into the library.
KB: The first time I heard the word gay I was probably about ten and watching a TV show called Laugh-In with my family. It was a sketch comedy show. The word was used in a joke and I didn’t get it. I asked my mom what gay meant and she told me it was when two men loved each other. She didn’t say it with any judgement, yet I knew immediately it was something that wasn’t normal, that it was the butt of jokes and not accepted.
How have things changed since you were a queer teen?
MB: There have been so many incredible advances in culture and law regarding queer life, although there remain very real dangers and prejudices that we must confront. Queer youth homelessness, depression, and suicide are still huge parts of our lives, and we must do everything we can to address them. For me, the most beautiful thing to see is the melting away of strict categories like gay into a rainbow of sexual and gender expressions that feels so true to life and how it’s experienced.
KB: Oh my, things have changed so much since 1983! Back then, there were really only a few choices: gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans. There were no gays on television, unless it was the brunt of a joke or a serial killer. Queers were kicked out of the military, were fired from their jobs, could not get married. Queer parents had their children taken away from them, simply because they were queer. It was such a different world thirty-seven years ago. In some states it was illegal for consenting adults to have queer sex with one another. We have come so far in a short time. I know we still have a way to go, but I have hope for our future.
How can we encourage and help queer teens today?
MB: The first rule for me is LISTEN. So many older queer men like me have been through so much, and we have learned so much—we cannot help ourselves jumping in to share our experiences. But we need to give queer people space to express themselves, explore who they are without imposing categories on them, and even let them make mistakes—just as we did! I learn so much just by listening to young people and what they have to share, especially now that things have changed so much in regards to queer life and acceptance. Of course we can offer advice, like where to find health services or help with depression and mental illness, but so many times I see young people silenced online when they are trying to tell us something about themselves. Let them speak.
KB: Things are so different today, yet in many ways they are the same. Teens today just want to be accepted and seen for who they are—whether it’s a nonbinary gender identity, pansexual, asexual or simply queer. Listen with an open heart and open mind. And one simple thing that is so easy to do is to let people know what your preferred pronouns are: “My name is Kathy and I use she/her pronouns.” It immediately identifies you as an ally to the queer community.